Friday, July 29, 2016

Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh ich sech)

GOODNIGHT MOMMY (ICH SEH ICH SEH) (Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, 2014)

During lazy summer days twin brothers Elias and Lukas (Elias Schwarz and Lukas Schwarz) keep busy in the usual ways young boys do. They explore the woods behind their glamorous and remote country home, go swimming, collect bugs, and generally enjoy the freedom that comes from having no obligations. Aside from the conspicuous absence of any adults, it seems like a pleasant situation. Things change when their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns in GOODNIGHT MOMMY (ICH SEH ICH SEH). She has undergone an operation, presumably cosmetic surgery, that has resulted in her head being heavily bandaged while she recovers.

At first the boys are happy that their mother is back, but it doesn’t take long for them to sense something different about her. In fact, they suspect that she is not actually their mother. She’s sterner than the woman they last saw. She insists that the blinds be closed at all times. The twins are not to bother her, and if they must, they need to knock on her bedroom door. She demands that they stay quiet while playing in or close to the house and are not to have anyone over. The more time passes, the more Elias and Lukas look for ways to test if this woman is who she is presenting herself to be.

GOODNIGHT MOMMY thrives on a dread-filled atmosphere. Common sounds, like the scratchy static of a walkie-talkie, the roar of a vacuum, and the sharp snap of closed blinds, are violent interruptions in a sleek, spacious home already tense with silence and suspicions. The artwork and photographs on the walls do nothing to ease the impression that something is off-kilter about this place. Paintings that seem to resemble the mother have blurred her face. A grouping of family pictures have empty spots where some have clearly been removed. Snapshots have clearly been purged from a photo album, as if their physical absence might erase the existence of whatever was captured in them.

Co-writer/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala build GOODNIGHT MOMMY around the terror of living with someone who behaves in a way no longer familiar to you. Although physical violence is a comparatively lesser portion of the horror, the bloodletting and torture are felt more acutely because of who performs these deeds and the tactile nature of them. The film draws its unsettling power from the psychic disturbance of coexisting in an environment where two oppositional realities compete in the minds of the inhabitants. If one side in a home perceives the fundamental truth of a relationship unlike the other, then trust and security are under a constant strain.

GOODNIGHT MOMMY provides a good example of how the approach to material can matter more than what the story is. Franz and Fiala take a boilerplate scenario and minimize plot details and the characters’ backgrounds. Such ambiguity heightens the stakes as the viewer’s perspective on the situation is charged with uncertainty. GOODNIGHT MOMMY stokes the anxious ambience and seems to be unconcerned with a secret hiding in plain sight because the goal is to chill, not to make a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

Grade: B+

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